Let’s take a step back this week from recent contentious columns! Before moving on, though, I want to briefly address some reader responses.
Blackouts and crowding
Readers are as puzzled as I am about recent fertilizer black-out’ ordinances. More research on my part is required on this issue, and I am doing that as quickly as I can. I do know, however, that studies linking fertilizer runoff to water pollution are very scarce indeed.
On Vanderbilt Beach Road, I faulted the designer for poor spacing of plant materials. To those faulting me, I apologize for not being clear: planting designers must have solid horticultural grounding. Specifying materials that will be crowded out is irresponsible, wasting money and increasing maintenance costs. I have compared this to an architect specifying drywall for an exterior siding material. You wouldn’t stand for it, and specifying plants that will die due to crowding is irresponsible.
Down with weeds
When a garden area is designed with maintenance in mind, the look and feel — and this is the heart of it, isn’t it? — is of an enduring estate. How do we achieve this enduring, clean look?
Today, let’s talk about reducing the cost of weed control. I see a lot of herbicide usage. The latest figures available for herbicide usage in the US are from 2001: 553 million pounds. This is not only huge, it’s also expensive: in 2001, total expenditure for herbicides was $6.4 billion.
Here are some better ways.
First: Design for maintenance. Follow this simple rule: Find the right plant, and use it. Use one plant in a mass. For larger elements, consider the benefits of a row of shade trees—same species—or a similar row of large palms. You get a better design that is much easier to maintain. Don’t ‘wiggle’ sod lines. It’s unsophisticated and it makes mowing grass more difficult.
Second: Use quality irrigation. Don’t skimp on the irrigation system. Especially these days, it is essential to know and control the amount of water you are using so your plants are healthy and therefore easier to maintain. New controllers make this much easier.
Third: Space your plants correctly. Ever notice that weeds don’t grow so much within the drip line of a plant? The simplest, and best, way to control weeds over the long term is to place plants at the correct spacing, so that at maturity they form a solid bed, crowding weeds by denying light.
Mulch is a large annual expense for homowner’s associations and homeowners alike. With correct spacing, mulch expense decreases annually as your plants grow in, reaching a point where only peripheral mulch is required.
Fourth: Be smart about mulch. Mulch is available in several specifications; I like one from the leftovers of a fence pole operation, because the pieces form a solid, long-lasting mat. Some don’t like the color, which can vary, or indeed may not have access to this bulk material. Another great source is Forestry Resources, which has stores in both Naples and Fort Myers and offers a wide range of products; Vita-Mulch is one I use.
I don’t use “hurricane mulch,” or any other mulch offered by a city or county, not because I don’t want to participate in a worthy program, but because I just do not know what is in the mulch, which could contain chemicals and weed seeds that I don’t want.
Stay away from colored mulch. A garden features plants, not mulch. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that mulch is an aesthetic element. It is not. Don’t even think of using rocks and weed barriers; this is a long-term headache that not only fills with dirt, and weeds, but radiates heat to the plants.
Fifth: Be smart about fertilizer. Healthy plants are easier to maintain, and fertilizer is an essential part of plant health. Apply fertilizer four times a year, and be diligent in this; mark the calendar, and read the instructions on the bag. Those instructions are the end result of research by the manufacturer and oversight review. Apply the material within the drip line. As you work with your plants and watch how they respond, adjust the quantity that you use. Example: bananas are very heavy feeders, but wart fern is not. Watch your plants carefully.
Sixth: Be smart about disease. In most cases it’s not necessary to treat each and every pest infestation, because often they are self-limiting. In my own gardens, I figure that 15 percent plant disfigurement is my tolerance. You may have a different “flinch-point.”
As usual, there’s more on the Web site. Go to www.msadesign.com and click on ‘Blog” on the right side near the top. And keep those comments and e-mails coming (firstname.lastname@example.org). I respond to all of them.
Michael Spencer, ASLA, has been practicing landscape architecture for 25 years and is president of MSA Design, Inc. Web site: www.msadesign.com